Whose Line is it Anyway? or Teens and Plagiarism Within Creative Works

The past month has brought us two stories from the publishing world that highlight just how little most people understand copyright law.

The’  more widely-publicized story came to us from Germany. Seventeen year old Helene Hegemann became a literary star when her first novel Axolotl Roadkill came out in January to rave reviews. But it wasn’t long before blogger Deef Pirmasens discovered several long passages of the book were copied word-for-word from the pages of another German blogger known only as Airen. You can read the full details of the story on Time’s website, but Hegemann’s response has essentially been that what she was doing was not plagiarism but a technique often used in experimental literature sometimes called intertextuality.

Nick Simmons, son of Gene Simmons of Kiss, sparked another controversy with his newly released comic book Incarnate, published by Radical Comics. Some even cursory looks at his work show not just an influence but blatant copying of character designs and page layouts from Tite Kubo’s mega-popular Manga series Bleach. Radical has done the right thing by putting the title on hold until the whole issue is settled, but various comments on Deb Aoki’s blog show a bigger issue. From scanalations to fanfic and fanart to blatantly stealing someone else’s ideas, most people just don’t understand copyright and why we have it.

I’ll be the first to admit, it can be confusing. Sampling has long been an accepted technique in electronic music and Hip Hop, and major artistic figures like William S. Burroughs and Robert Rauschenberg have based their careers around different techniques of borrowing and re-purposing the creations of others. Add to it things like fan videos on YouTube and you have a climate that makes people think it’s okay to take someone else’s ideas whenever you want and do whatever you like with them without obtaining permission.

By and large I think teachers and librarians do a pretty good job teaching copyright in relation to school work. Teens learn about citing sources, using quotes and the proper method to attribute the ideas of another. But we often forget to extend these lessons to the more murky area of creative works: fiction, poetry, music, painting, video, etc. Keeping in mind that the creative teens of today are the artists of tomorrow, what role can libraries play to combat this issue? What programs or lessons have you tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to teach copyright and the meaning behind it to teens?

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t agree that fanfiction, or other creative works, are necessarily an issue that needs to be combatted; and I don’t agree that they necessarily reflect an ignorance of copyright laws.

    Rather than being concerned about teens writing stories about Jacob and Edward making out, does it make more sense to be concerned about how much of our cultural territory is now owned by megacorporations, and “fair use” is determined by which side has the more expensive lawyers?

  2. Well it depends. Fanfic written for fun without any intent of publication or sharing publicly is a fun way to express your creativity, and certainly not a problem copyright-wise. I’ve written my fair share of it, and I’ve even used it as a teaching tool for beginning writers. Some authors—like Stephanie Meyer—even encourage it and run contests for it. But as soon as it’s circulated in print our on a website, that’s when you run into problems. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to talk about the aspects you bring up to teens, especially if it’s done in a way to help them understand the current laws better.

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